Making Sense of Surveys on Religion: Contradictions and Predictions

Barry Kosmin

When I lecture about public opinion surveys, I always begin by reminding the audience that the respondents are under no obligation to be consistent or logical in their responses. This is especially necessary when dealing with surveys on religion, for the topic is rather vague in the minds of most people. This is because religion covers a diverse range of topics—personal faith, ideology/theology, social institutions, community, and the clergy. This tends to produce some confusion when one tries to analyze and understand the findings. The recent 2019 Pew Research Center Survey on Religion with its large, nationally representative sample of over 6,000 respondents is a good example.

The survey once again notes the rise of the Nones and the decline of Christian identification, especially among young adults. The general public acknowledges this trend, so a large majority believes that religion is losing influence in public life. However, a majority regard this trend as negative, because 55 percent agree that “religion does more good than harm,” and 53 percent believe religion “strengthens morality in society.” On the other hand, 63 percent say that religious institutions should stay out of political matters. But surely politics is often about questions pertaining to public life and morality. In addition, 37 percent say churches and other houses of worship have too much influence in politics, while 28 percent say they have too little.

If the public largely believes religion is a good thing, then it probably matters who the public considers friendly toward religion. The scores are as follows: Republican Party, 54 percent; Democratic Party, 19 percent; media, 10 percent; university professors, 6 percent. As one might expect, there are large differences between the political parties; Republican voters are much more positive about religion than Democrats. For example, 71 percent of Republicans believe religion does more good than harm compared with only 44 percent of Democrats. On strengthening morality, the gap is similar: 68 percent of Republicans versus 41 percent of Democrats. The party polarization would be even starker were the comparisons restricted to only white voters. Hispanic and black Democrats are more positive about religion. In fact, on most questions, black Democrats’ opinions are closer to those of Republicans than to those of fellow white Democrats. The fact that the most loyal Democratic constituency is favorable toward religion explains why secularists are less influential than might be expected within the Democratic Party.

The clergy are the public or human face of religion. Despite the widely reported financial and moral scandals among clergy during the past few decades, 65 percent of the public believe “clergy have high/very high ethical standards.” There is perhaps a slight echo of the clergy troubles in the findings. Whereas 19 percent of all regular worship attendees have a “very close relationship with their clergy,” just 8 percent of Catholics say they are very close to their priest.

So how do atheists fare in this survey? They appear in two interesting questions. One is the “feeling thermometer,” which measures the overall warmth of the total sample toward different groups on a scale of 0 to 100. The scores read: Jews, 63; Catholics, 60; mainline Protestants, 60; evangelical Christians, 53; Mormons, 52; Muslims, 49; and atheists, 49. One surprise here might be the narrow range of the scores. The other takeaway is that the groups toward the bottom are probably the most controversial. This brings us to the second question directed at regular worshipers. They were asked which groups their clergy spoke about negatively in their sermons. The scores were atheists, 19 percent; Muslims, 6 percent; Catholics, 5 percent; evangelicals, 3 percent; and Jews, 1 percent. Atheists were the particular target of 31 percent of evangelical pastors.

These data reveal an important new trend in twenty-first century American religion and politics, which is the decline of theological antagonisms and religious hatreds. Clergy no longer spit fire and brimstone at other religions over matters of revelation, salvation, and divinity. In fact, increasingly they work together in coalition to progress their common societal agenda. Counterintuitively, this is a strong feature among fundamentalists and traditionalists of the religious Right. Whereas evangelicals were suspicious of a Catholic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, in 1960, today they have no problem endorsing conservative Catholics as justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Mormons and Catholics worked closely together in support of California’s Proposition 8 against same-sex marriage in 2008.

This situation was predicted as long ago as 1776 by Adam Smith in Book Five of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. He postulated, using Pennsylvania as his model, that in polities where there was no established state religion with a monopoly, a free market in religion would emerge as options multiplied. No one group could dominate and persecute others in a situation of religious pluralism, with the result that there would be a reduction in religious strife. On the other hand, he warned that the outcome might not always favor reason and sophistication. Groups would flourish “led by popular and bold, though perhaps stupid and ignorant enthusiasts” whose favorite ploy would be to turn on their common enemy, the atheists and nonbelievers. Hence the continuing marginalization of freethinkers in the United States.

Barry Kosmin

Barry Kosmin is Research Professor of Public Policy and Law and the director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Connecticut. He has been principal investigator of the American Religious Indentification Survey since 1990. His books include Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non- Religious Americans (with Ariela Keysar, Paramount Market Publishers, 2006).


When I lecture about public opinion surveys, I always begin by reminding the audience that the respondents are under no obligation to be consistent or logical in their responses. This is especially necessary when dealing with surveys on religion, for the topic is rather vague in the minds of most people. This is because religion …

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